Five years ago, the complaint against Microsoft brewing before the European Court of First Instance was that it was not contributing enough knowledge about Windows' source code to let others develop services for it. That didn't make sense to the European Commission, which openly asked, what good is an operating system if it doesn't operate anything except itself?

Yesterday, the organization responsible for the Free Software-licensed system of file and print services called Samba - the group that had helped keep Microsoft in court for over six years - acknowledged that a distribution that showed up in Samba's respositories on October 11 contained interoperability code for Windows from Microsoft itself.

"A few years back, a patch submission from coders at Microsoft would have been amazing to the point of unthinkable, but the battles are mostly over and times have changed," wrote Samba's Chris Sertel yesterday. "We still disagree on some things such as the role of software patents in preventing the creation of innovative software; but Microsoft is now at the forefront of efforts to build a stronger community and improve interoperability in the SMB world."

The change from both sides

"Disagree" is a noticeable toning down from the language Samba employed in its original objections to Microsoft's business conduct. Sensing a conspiracy to neutralize competition, five years ago next week, Samba published a condemnation of Microsoft's patent covenant deal with Novell. Alleging the deal was an attempt to divide Free Software proponents from the sources of commercial software that may eventually become free, the Samba team wrote, "The GPL [General Public License] makes it clear that all distributors of GPL'd software must stand together in the fight against software patents. Only by standing together do we stand a chance of defending against the peril represented by software patents. With this agreement Novell is attempting to destroy that unified defense, exchanging the long term interests of the entire Free Software community for a short term advantage for Novell over their competitors." Novell had distributed its version of the Linux kernel under the GPL established by the Free Software Foundation.

The current version of the GPL makes no such imposition on licensees to stand up against software patents in general, but rather stipulates that the contributor to the licensed software may not impose any patents rights it may have against any user of the software.

The long, long fine

After Microsoft was found guilty of abuse of dominant power in September 2007, it was ordered to freely disclose interoperability code, and to regularly communicate how it was complying with that order with the aid of an appointed monitoring trustee. By March 2009, the EC determined that Microsoft was sharing enough code to render the need for the trustee unnecessary.

But a fine of nearly €900 million hung over Microsoft in the interim, and last May, the company's objection to the fine was heard. A final ruling on that fine is forthcoming.

Responding to that objection, Samba creator Andrew Tridgell was quoted as saying that while Microsoft had publicly published certain elements of its interoperability code, it had withheld certain mundane parts of the code that the company claimed should be licensed to others only for a fee.

"There is nothing innovative here," Free Software Foundation Europe quotes Tridgell as saying. "All the innovative bits are either already published by Microsoft's own researchers, or are contained in the Microsoft program source code - and we have no interest in seeing that. The innovation certainly isn't in the protocol specifications."

The fact that the withheld portion of the code was indeed mundane was actually the subject of a 2007 EC objection, which proposed that no company should be allowed to charge money for something that isn't unique and worthy of protection.

Thursday evening, a Microsoft spokesperson provided RWW with this statement: "The patch to the Samba code enables Linux clients to better interoperate with Microsoft Windows in mixed source environments. Contributed under GPL 2+, the patch is an individual contribution made by Stephen Zarkos in line with Samba policies in place at the time."

In introducing his contribution to Samba on October 10, Zarkos wrote the following for the contributors' mailing list:

Earlier this year we had an intern working with us to implement a proof of concept for extended protection (channel and service binding) for Firefox and Samba. To enable this scenario on the client side, we were able to use libraries available on Windows and contribute code to the Mozilla team to make this all work. On the Linux side, however, Firefox utilizes Samba for NTLM authentication and so he also built some patches for Samba to enable this scenario.

These patches have been approved for release as 'GPLv2 or later' and copyright has been assigned to me (just like our build farm patches earlier). My only concern is that these patches may be bit stale and may need some work. Hopefully they are still useful to you and are not so huge that you can see what he was trying to do.

Samba's Chris Hertel, at least, saw the contribution as significant, and noted the seismic shift in the landscape in five years' time: "Most people didn't even notice the source of the contribution. That's how far things have come in the past four-ish years," he wrote, "but some of us saw this as a milestone, and wanted to make a point of expressing our appreciation for the patch and the changes we have seen."